ASC Mentors Lit Path for Jensen

James McAvoy in a scene from Filth, shot by Matthew Jensen, ASC.
James McAvoy in a scene from Filth, shot by Matthew Jensen, ASC. (Credit: Magnolia Pictures)

When I spoke with Matthew Jensen, ASC, he had recently finished up the DI on Fantastic Four after spending a year and a half on the project. The timing was perfect, because his wife had just given birth to a baby girl.

Matthew, whose credits also include the movies Filth and Chronicle, became a member of the ASC in 2013. I asked him how it affected him. “All my professional heroes were in the ASC,” he says. “When you’re starting out, you’re just trying to survive and keep going from project to project and make a living. You’re just trying to grab any toehold. Belonging to an honorary society like the ASC just never occurred to me.”

Woody Omens was the first ASC member Matthew encountered. Omens was a professor at the University of Southern California, where Matthew studied filmmaking. “Woody was extremely optimistic and believed very strongly in the ASC as an educational resource for students, and I really appreciated that,” Matthew recalls. “He was always encouraging us to experiment. He would take time out of a busy day to look at your small film. He would give you his thoughts, and he was relentlessly positive. At one point, he told me, ‘You know, someday you’ll be in the ASC,’ and I just thought he was bananas! But I remembered that.

“Another one of my mentors was Dean Cundey [ASC], whose son, Chris, and I were at USC at the same time. Chris asked me to shoot a short film, and Dean essentially hooked us up — we got all this gear from Panavision and shot on 35mm, which was our Holy Grail because we’d been shooting on Super 8 and 16mm up to that point.

“Even though Dean was shooting Apollo 13 at the time, he would come to our set if he had a later call,” Matthew continues. “He taught me the fundamentals of running a set as a director of photography. He helped me light, but more importantly, he taught me about solving problems and how to think about the day ahead. He really emphasized efficient and simple communication with the crew. I was maybe 22 at the time. The time he took with me, and what I learned from him, has meant more and more to me over the years.”

Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC, set up an internship for Matthew on Batman Forever, and the fledgling cameraman was able to observe the production for two weeks. Matthew recalls, “Stephen asked me a question that was also a kind of warning: ‘Do you really want to be in this business?’ I said yes. ‘Okay, a couple things to remember: If you want to shoot, just go for exactly that. You won’t eat for a while, but the starvation will pay off; you won’t get used to the money or the other positions. And don’t get married for a while.’

“I’ve always wanted to tell him that I didn’t get married until I was 40 basically because he told me not to!” Matthew says with a laugh.

Jensen (left) at work on an episode of True Blood. (Credit: HBO)
Jensen (left) at work on an episode of True Blood. (Credit: HBO)

Matthew also recalls a long breakfast with the late Conrad Hall, ASC, to whom he had written a letter. “He was very generous with his wisdom and his stories. He was in his 70s, and even with his amazing career and Oscars, he was still burning to do something he really cared about. I loved his tenacity. He was bitterly disappointed with his most recent film, and he wanted another shot. He could have been 22 and just out of film school, just as I was.”

One final story about the generosity of ASC members concerns the late Gordon Willis. Matthew was preparing to shoot a black-and-white low-budget feature, and the lab connected him with Willis. They had a couple of two-hour phone calls.

“I was having trouble with the test footage I was getting back from the lab, and Gordon outlined a step-by-step method for testing whether the lab was screwing up in the development,” Matthew says. “I caught them overdeveloping the negative red-handed. Gordon told me exactly what they would say about why this was happening — technical mumbo-jumbo — and what I should say in response. It happened exactly as he’d predicted, and I was so confident in dealing with the lab as a result. He taught me the importance of arming yourself with information until it’s irrefutable. Go about it with a non-judgmental, scientific approach. It’s a lesson I still draw on today.”

I reminded Matthew that sharing information about technical concerns and navigating the business side of the job were two reasons the ASC was founded almost 100 years ago.

“I never dreamed I would be in the ASC,” he says. “The fact that I’m able to be in same room with these people is jaw-dropping and intimidating, but in the best way.”

Jensen lines up a shot for Fantastic Four. (Credit: Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox)
Jensen lines up a shot for Fantastic Four. (Credit: Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox)




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